Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

A reader may reveal something about himself by his preference for one writer over another. Or by his preference for one book over another by the same writer.

One of the classic questions is: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? George Steiner made a great deal of the question--more than I'm equipped to get into, or want to get into, here--and wrote a book by that title. From the back cover:
George Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky has become a classic among scholars of Russian literature. An essay in poetic and philosophic criticism that bears mainly on the Russian masters, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky deals also with larger themes: the epic tradition extending from Homer to Tolstoy; the continuity of a "tragic world view" from Oedipus Rex to King Lear and The Brothers Karamazov; the contrasts between the epic and dramatic modes, between irreconcilably opposed views of God and of history.
If you are intrigued, pick up the volume. You can also find selected parts of the book in The George Steiner Reader.

Here's a significant excerpt:
Even beyond their deaths, the two novelists stand in contrariety. Tolstoy, the foremost heir to the traditions of the epic; Dostoevsky, one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare; Tolstoy, the mind intoxicated with reason and fact; Dostoevsky, the contemner of rationalism, the great lover of paradox; Tolstoy, the poet of the land, of the rural setting and pastoral mood; Dostoevsky, the arch-citizen, the master-builder of the modern metropolis in the province of language; Tolstoy, thirsting for the truth, destroying himself and those about him in excessive pursuit of it; Dostoevsky, rather against the truth than against Christ, suspicious of total understanding and on the side of mystery; Tolstoy, "keeping at all times," in Coleridge's phrase, "in the high road of life"; Dostoevsky, advancing into the labyrinth of the unnatural, into the cellarage and morass of the soul; Tolstoy, like a colossus bestriding the palpable earth, evoking the realness, the tangibility, the sensible entirety of concrete experience; Dostoevsky, always on the verge of the hallucinatory, of the spectral, always vulnerable to daemonic intrusions into what might prove, in the end, to have been merely a tissue of dreams; Tolstoy, the embodiment of health and Olympian vitality; Dostoevsky, the sum of energies charged with illness and possession.
Heady stuff.

On the simple reader's question--Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?--I prefer Tolstoy.

Oprah, I take it, also favors Tolstoy. (Or does she? She recommended the book to her legions of book-reading viewers but, perhaps, she didn't enjoy the novel. I didn't hear how it turned out for the book club.)

First Lady Laura Bush, we're told prefers Dostoevsky. Asked to name her favorite book, she selected the ''The Grand Inquisitor'' section of The Brothers Karamazov.

I'll leave the last word to Nabokov:
... we might list the greatest artists in Russian prose thus: first, Tolstoy; second, Gogol; third, Chekhov; fourth, Turgenev. This is rather like grading students' papers and no doubt Dostoevski and Saltykov are waiting at the door of my office to discuss their low marks.
--Marshal Zeringue